Pyrolysis – A VERY Dangerous Condition

What exactly is Pyrolysis – why do I care and how does it apply to wood burning systems?

Pyrolysis is a breakdown of organic material which occurs at high temperatures in the absence of oxygen. It is an irreversible physical and chemical change in the organic material and can be extremely dangerous.  The word is from the Greek words pyro and lysis (meaning fire and separating).  In the world of wood burning appliances we observe most often when flue gas carrying systems (pipes and chimneys – often masonry chimneys) are too close to combustible material (often wooden structural material).  The process occurs around 200°C to 300°C and essentially is a charring of the wood.  It is very dangerous and the only reason the wood did not ignite was due to insufficient oxygen present. Two problems really are present when pyrolysis has occurred – first the ignition point of the wood will actually be lower than it was before the process took place – second if oxygen concentration does reach a high enough level at that point in the future combustion will almost certainly occur.

Many Chimney Sweeps and/or Installers would have seen this – most often in older buildings.  Unfortunately many WETT Certified SITE Basic Inspectors neither have seen nor have necessary experience to pick up clues when it does exist.

Fact is that normally wood will ignite no lower than around 200°C, but wood that has been seriously impacted by pyrolysis can ignite at temperatures as low as 100°C!  Problem is that wood which has been impacted by pyrolysis is generally not visible, if you recall one reason this occurs is low oxygen levels, hence it is often buried deep in wall and close to hot combustion gas carrying pipes/chimneys.  Sometimes pyrolysis can slowly progress, even over several decades, but this does not make it any less dangerous.

Keep in mind that any improperly installed fireplaces or wood stoves can cause pyrolysis of the wood in the floor or walls around the appliance.

Pyrolysis can be caused by any wood stove, masonry fireplace, factory built gas fireplace, or any appliance which during operation produces temperatures of over 100°C for extended periods.  It is critically important to have a Level 2 Inspection when you purchase ANY property with wood burning system – a further inspection should be performed with each Chimney Sweep annually – be sure to hire ONLY Certified Chimney Sweeps!


Tips On Using Your Wood Stove

Each winter those of us living in the Midland and Penetanguishene area have to think about keeping our houses warm; and many use wood as a secondary or primary heat source.  In the Midland area wood is a renewable, environmentally friendly, affordable and locally produced resource.  However, there are so many in the Midland area who are not using their wood stoves properly to heat their home.  Some were never taught how to do it and others are using older style techniques which do not work well with newer stoves.  Fact is many are used to the fossil fuel heating systems with a thermostat; easy and convenient; but not so with wood heat.  How you use your wood stove can significantly impact performance and safety.

Operating your stove properly provides not only more heat out of each stick of wood; but also allows the stove to burn cleaner.

If you can sustain a complete combustion of the wood; all that will result as a by product will be heat, Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and water vapour.   Left behind will be ash, essentially the mineral content of the wood, which is useful as a product for use around the home.   On the other hand improper combustion will produce carbon particles, carbon monoxide (CO) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.   None of which you want to breath or send out into the outdoor atmosphere.  So what is best way to ensure you are burning properly?

First of all you should use a High-efficiency Stove!  Since 1988 wood stoves and inserts use high efficiency designs to help ensure proper combustion takes place.  Outdoor boilers were not designed this way, but are getting better each year.  Most wood stoves use a couple of techniques to accomplish a complete burn – the first is often to pre-warm the combustion air entering the firebox – another being the use of a shelf or other method to make the gases take a longer route to the chimney allowing them to burn completely.  Some models also use a catalytic device to assist with this secondary burn.

If your stove is an older model, please do consider replacing it.  You may think it is a waste of money getting rid of an older stove that works perfectly well, however you will end up using a lot less wood – generally about 1/3 less but I have seen extreme cases of 2/3 less consumption!

Once you have an efficient stove – use it properly!  Use properly seasoned wood.  It is true that seasoned wood is easier to burn, but also it provides more heat to the home!  Keep in mind that wood can also be TOO DRY – which actually will provide less heat!   Properly seasoned wood has around 20% moisture by weight.  Freshly cut or green wood may have 45% moisture by weight; and 12% to 15% less heat than the seasoned wood.  Furthermore the stove itself burns more efficiently – it is designed to burn seasoned wood with around 20% moisture content.  Be sure yoiur wood is cut, split and stacked – and allowed to dry for at least six months to a year.

Keep the fire hot.  To get high efficiency you need heat – the secondary burn will not occur in a cool fire.  The key to high efficiency burn and secondary combustion is heat – at least 600°C in the combustion zone.  Cooler than that and while the wood will burn, the combustible gases will not, and will escape up the chimney – forming creosote in the chimney.

Be sure it has air to breathe.  Those of us old enough to remember the early air tight stoves were taught that we can “control the heat” by closing down the dampers and limiting the amount of air going into the wood stove. This works in theory and actually does dampen the fire down, but it also prevents complete combustion of the wood.  Modern wood stoves are NOT designed to operate this way.  The best way to control the heat is to control the wood you put in the firebox.  The only time to dampen down new stoves is when the fire has burned down to glowing embers and you are not adding more wood; partially close the dampers then to limit airflow through the stove.  At this point in the burn the amount of air needed drops so by partially closing the damper it will reduce the amount of heat drawn out of the house overnight.

Yes wood stoves are popular in Midland and Penetanguishene and surrounding area.  Using them properly impacts how they perform.  However, it is not hard to learn how.  Sometimes we need to relearn and forget the old methods used in the 1980s and adapt to the newer more efficient wood stove methodology.  If you use some of the tips above you will use less wood and your air will be cleaner.

WETT Certified Airtight Stove!

Customer showed me an ad from Kijiji – asked if they should buy this stove.

The wording in ad stated “WETT Certified Airtight Stove$250.00 – Wood stove for sale, Nice unit it is currently wett certified and works good.”

Well, price is good if nothing else.  Grammar and sentence structure lacking.  But let’s get to the point.

There is NO SUCH THING as a WETT Certified Stove.  None, nowhere and never was!  Nor is there any such thing as a WETT Certificate.  Which is another one I hear almost weekly if not daily!

The WETT Inspector is the one who is Certified – and that WETT Certified

WETT Inspection - WETT Chimney Sweep
Find A WETT Certified Chimney Sweep

Inspector performs a Code Compliance Inspection on an installation which includes chimney, flue pipes and appliance (wood stove or fireplace).  The WETT Certified Inspector then should provide a written report (preferably on WETT provided forms) stating compliance and any problems found in code compliance or defects in the system.  (actually a SITE Basic Inspector may not identify and document defects as they often do not look closely enough to find them)

But keep in mind – there is NO SUCH THING AS A WETT CERTIFIED STOVE or CHIMNEY or ANYTHING – Other than the Inspector!

Another order of supplies.. wood stove and wood insert repairs.

Just arrived.. another order of stove repair supplies!  Good .. as was getting low on fiberglass stove rope.

One of the common faults with wood stoves is the seal around window and/or the door.  A rope-like material is used to seal and keep flue gases from entering living area.  Needs to be replaced when not in top and pristine condition.  I used the rope provided by A.W.Perkins which is black in colour; unlike many of the other rope suppliers which is actually white.  Really makes no different they all work, use “Hotspot – Heatbond stove rope glue” to hold in place firmly – comes in various sizes but I generally use the 125ml bottles of glue.

Ensure your woodstove or insert has a good condition and functional seal around window and door.

Fact is while not the only repair in the Midland and Penetanguishene area – it is likely one of the most common.  Not sure how many times I have heard people say they were told they needed a new stove because they could smell smoke when using it and the only problem was the stove rope around the door not providing an effective seal!

Is burning wood an efficient and renewable way to keep our homes warm?

Wood is something that many do not fully understand and often jump to conclusions. Some consider it a dirty fuel that contributes to pollution and green house gases. Others consider it a reliable, efficient and clean energy option. Which is true?

Realistically wood can for the most part be either. In a worst case scenario, burning a campfire outside in your backyard, all of the heat is wasted, there is no managed secondary burn to control emissions and large particles enter into the atmosphere. On the other side an energy efficient EPA Certified wood stove, which has a secondary burn to control waste and emissions and is burning seasoned wood as designed – will be an energy efficient heat source which is in fact greenhouse gas neutral. Yes neutral. There are zero amount of carbon release into the atmosphere than would be released if the wood were left to die naturally, the only difference may be in the speed of the carbon release.

But then some might say, we are cutting down our forests to create the firewood. Well, another urban myth created by those who really do not understand how woodlot and forest management works in Ontario. You see you can not simply enter a woodlot or forest and start cutting trees, it is illegal in Ontario and you will pay the consequences.  You must manage the forest properly and there are officers employed to work with you and to control abusive individuals.  Yes some do get away with some illegal activities and that is going to happen, but for the most part it does not.  In fact the most abusive individuals in our area are aboriginal decent, and try to use that as an excuse to say they can do what they want, which is a disgrace as any of their ancestors would manage the forest and leave for the future generations.  Wood stores carbon as the trees grow naturally and when decaying will release that carbon back to the atmosphere – burning is an identical release of carbon and the only thing we have changed is method of release and timeline.

What really happens in our area, and Ontario for that matter, is forests are managed and dead, dying or less desirable trees are removed allowing the remainder to be more healthy and grow better.  In years to come the remainder will be thinned and younger left room to thrive, however this ongoing cycle is not an annual cutting but one that happens only every five or ten years in any given woodlot – there is a minimum basil area which legally must be maintained in the woodlot to satisfy the law.

Some of the positive sides are the carbon you release burning wood – is in fact absorbed by the new trees growing – as designed in nature.  However to get this efficiency out of wood – you need to ensure that you season it properly and burn it wisely – otherwise you are wasting the wood energy and contributing to more pollution.  Do it right and you are energy smart!

It is true that for those on a budget, wood heat has the potential to save them money compared to other heating systems, this is no more true than comparing to electric heating (especially in Ontario).  Our current government has made electricity virtually unaffordable for most living outside the large urban area where annual income is lower and the electricity cost are higher.. frankly I don’t think I have ever seen any worse solution for energy production than we currently have in Ontario – and the sad part is our government convinced the urban dwellers it was the right thing to do and gained votes by this silly platform.

Moving on – wood heating means you gain independence.  Independence from the energy costs – independence from power failures – independence from others telling you what to spend.  This is no more so true than if you can get your wood for free from your own property which many in the Midland and Penetanguishene area are able to do.  However, even if you do purchase wood – you are helping to support the local community.  On the other hand purchasing electricity sends those dollars to other parts of the province, country and even other countries!

Now there are efficient and inefficient ways to burn that wood.  A modern wood stove is perhaps one of your best options – and an old pot belly stove or masonry fireplace maybe the worst – sending the most heat up the chimney.  Now while we are on that – many think all fireplaces are inefficient and that is not so – the Rumford fireplace design is efficient and even EPA certified and tested – but more on that in other blogs.

I have heard some say it takes a lot of trees to make the wood you need, some saying an acres to make half a cord.  Nonsense – In fact I have seen single trees which will produce half a cord – and not on a rare occasion.  I had a good friend who produced firewood – some of the best in the area – and I have seen many large old trees which would provide easily half a cord of good firewood.  Having said that – ensure you buy your firewood from smaller companies – they will by far provide you with the best firewood and will almost always ensure the forest and woodlot is managed properly.  Do not burn unseasoned wood – on the other hand don’t waste money on kiln dried firewood!  One of the silliest marketing ideas around yet – when firewood in Ontario can be seasoned properly and naturally outside.  But do season it – as properly seasoned firewood has more than four times the heat value of green (uncured) wood, since, when burned, not as much energy has to be used to remove moisture.  What is seasoned wood – it is wood that has dried naturally to the point where it has a moisture level of less than 20%. Typically, this is achieved by air-drying rain-protected split wood for at least six warm months.

Finally don’t forget to get you chimney cleaned by a Certified Chimney Sweep!

The Rumford Fireplace – They Are Not All Equal – Do It Right

The Rumford fireplace is an amazing design, an efficient and great looking fireplace.  Yes efficient.. hard to believe for many.. and some looking at the design would say it will not work or that it will be smoky in operation.

Fact is it does work, fact the Rumford is efficient.  Fact is it is even EPA approved and is the ONLY fireplace design that can support a secondary burn!

But there are modifications to the Rumford that have been done over the years and many do not work, they neglect the science behind the design – remember that Rumford himself was a physicist and understood Fluid Dynamics, Thermal and Heat Properties and built the fireplace design with science in mind. One of these early design changes was actually Thomas Jefferson, making some drawings to “improve the design” which unfortunately neglected science and frankly were a failure.

Fact is Rumford did it right and we can still use his original design today if we implement correctly – do not attempt to modify it or you may end up with a smoky mess!

If you want an efficient masonry fireplace – why not research and consider a Rumford – it does work!

The Beautiful and Efficient Rumford Fireplace

Never heard of a Rumford; I am sure you have seen one and just not known what it was.  A Rumford is a fireplace design, actually a historical design build for efficiency and also for design – invented in the 18th century.  If you have seen, you likely saw in an elegant home, and likely assumed it was far outside your budget range or that of a typical homeowner.

Well, let me give you the real information.  First of all, the Rumford design is efficient and is actually EPA tested and approved, yes that is right.  Most assume that fireplaces are simply inefficient and there is nothing you can do about it to make it any better, well the inefficient design was actually a more recent design built to make the fireplace smaller and fit into a tight / tiny space.  In fact it was designed by an architect, and not a scientist!  It was not build with any degree of efficiency in mind, and hence it has little.  The Rumford was on the other hand designed by a Physicist who understood Thermal properties and Fluid Dynamics – understood heat flow and insulating properties of air and materials, understood what it needed to make a fire place work efficiently.  That is what the Rumford is, and yes the Rumford design has been EPA tested and is EPA approved.  There may be some hurdles in some municipalities understanding the Rumford fireplace, as they are not used to this design.  They may balk at the concept and think there will be smoke spillage; it goes against what most are taught in modern fireplace design – rather unfortunate as we have designed our concept of a fireplace around something that really is a very poor design.  Something that is purely aesthetic and not functional while the Rumford’s on the other hand were designed for BOTH – efficiency first and then of course as designed in the 18th century – attention to detail and appearance was not left out.

A Rumford fireplace is a custom crafted work of art, yes a craftsman can help you determine what options are best for your space but you need one who understands the Rumford design.  Of course there are many ways one can add to the Rumford basic design as well and still maintain the efficiency – but ensure the craftsman understands and adheres to the intended function and efficiency – there are good reasons these were calculated and built that way.

The Chimney Sweep and Infrared Technology

Infrared Technology – Infrared Cameras.  Yes something that has been around for a bit, in fact I purchased my first Infrared FLIR BCAM SD Camera in 2010 and have used it several times on Chimney jobs since.

Fact is an Infrared camera can see things we can not with our own eyes; all be it there is training required to enable using the Infrared camera properly.

On the other hand, there is another use of Infrared – the Chimney Scan Camera also works on Infrared technology – this however is to allow scanning or viewing vivid photographs in a totally dark area.  I used to have a camera with a light – problem was it was often too dark or too bright.  This does not happen with the Infrared Chimney Camera – however the images provided, while vivid and clear, are only black and white.

To my knowledge we might be the only Chimney Sweep in the Midland and Penetanguishene with an Infrared Chimney Scan camera; but can not say for 100% certainty on that.

The Home Inspector Doing WETT Inspections

Spoke with another Chimney Sweep in Midland area today, and got onto topic of some Home Inspectors who perform WETT Inspections.  This is actually a topic that comes up from time to time, as there are always ample examples of where the inspections are simply done WRONG.

The other Sweep had a great analogy which I will share.

He compare it to buying a used car and taking to a mechanic to have the car inspected.

Now the first inspector would walk around the car; kick the tires and maybe even measure the tread depth.

The second mechanic opened the hood, checked the engine and transmission oil, started the car, pulled out a couple of spark plugs and examined them closely and even plugged a tester into the ODB II port.

Now the question was which mechanic would you want?

Of course the question was why would the first mechanic not do the same as the second one?  And the answer was “He was not licensed to do it; he only could do a visual inspection”.

That is actually not a bad comparison.  The SITE Basic Inspector is only qualified to perform a visual inspection of readily accessible components, and is not allowed to use any tools or inspect anything that requires using tools.  ( The word in the description of their credential actually specifies NOT USE ANY TOOLS ).

Really it describes the credential well, and the inspection they can perform is known as a Level 1 Inspection – the most basic of any WETT Inspection available.

Now the question then is why would you get the most basic inspection, from somebody who is not qualified to use any tools, and not able to perform a more in depth job — when you can get a more elaborate and extensive inspection if you hire a Chimney Sweep to do the job?

In fact several Home Inspectors have stated that they DO NOT do WETT Inspections – and they have chosen this for good reason.  There are many Inspectors across Ontario who realize this, and a few who do not and attempt the WETT Inspections themselves.  Really it is like any other speciality – it is a CODE INSPECTION.  It includes a few CSA Codes, the Ontario Building Code and the Ontario Fire Code as part of materials to reference.  A Home Inspection is NOT a CODE INSPECTION.  The two are NOT the same.

For Home Inspectors who feel WETT Inspections should be done by somebody who knows wood burning systems and is able to do the job right ask:

Pasquale D’Orrioco @ Above & Beyond Home Inspection
Darryl Coutts @ Keen Eye Home Inspections Ltd
Keith Leonard @ Paragon Home Inspection Services Inc
Bruce Grant @ Done Right Home Inspections

Well you might say how can so many Home Inspectors be wrong?  Well a WETT Inspection is clearly above and beyond a Home Inspection.  It is an area where a generalist is attempting to take the job of a professional or specialist.  Well, that is actually a good question, and one that is difficult to answer.  If you ask a Home Inspector who does the job, they would down play it and brush it off.

Well did you know that the SITE Basic Inspector (which 99.99% of all Home Inspectors in Ontario are) can only perform the visual basic Level 1 inspection as mentioned earlier in this article.

Did you also know that there are cases of errors done on these Level 1 inspections – yes several cases and who knows how many not found.

Did you also know the NFPA-211 states a Level 2 inspection should be WETT Inspection on Real Estate Transactionsdone on all Land Transfers or Real Estate Transactions?  Yes a Level 2 Inspection – the one the mechanic got into the car and stated it – pull a couple of spark plugs – yes that one!  The one a Chimney Sweep is able to perform.

Did you know that Home Inspector Bruce Grant, a qualified and capable Home Inspector, goes so far as to call the WETT Inspector performed by a Home Inspector as a “Disaster In The Making“.  Bruce recommends hiring a Chimney Sweep.

So there it is in a nutshell, the level of Inspection that the Home Inspector can perform, and the thoughts of one Home Inspector as well as a few examples across Ontario of competent Home Inspectors who realize they should NOT be performing the WETT Inspection!   No it is NOT the Chimney Sweeps who are saying this – it is some Master Home Inspectors themselves who realize the reasons and risks.  Call the ones above and ask yourself!  Protect yourself – it is worth much more than a few dollars saved.

And yes, while I can only speak for the Midland and Penetanguishene area, there are examples of WETT Inspections performed poorly not only in the Midland and Penetang area – but all across Ontario.

Yet Another Home Inspector Error

Speaking with another Chimney Sweep company in Midland today – they ran into another Home Inspector who had performed a WETT Inspection and made HUGE errors.  It is frustrating and sad when these WETT SITE Basic Inspectors are running around and frankly do not know what they are doing.  Now WETT Mandates the SITE Basic Inspector have a minimum number of inspections under their belt before certified – sad to say some of these inspectors may have minimum number of inspections but as they lack wood stove experience and hands on work – the inspections may well be wrong.  Hire a Chimney Sweep and get the inspection DONE RIGHT.